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Spain's sex work crackdown 'would push the issue further underground'

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By Heather Galloway
Prostitutes hide from riot police inside of a store during the eviction of a few activists who gathered at Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, Spain, in 2012
Prostitutes hide from riot police inside of a store during the eviction of a few activists who gathered at Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, Spain, in 2012   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Linda came to Spain 23 years ago after getting “a tip” that it was a good place to make money as a sex worker.

Pregnant by a partner who abandoned her back in her native Mexico, she was taken on by a sex club in Murcia on the Mediterranean coast. 

“They gave me work and a place to live for me and my daughter when she was born,” she told Euronews. “It’s an option for a lot of female immigrants because they don’t ask for residency papers – or didn’t then.”

Linda went on to work in various clubs on what is known as the Mediterranean Corridor, a term coined by sociologist Antonio Arino to claim that prostitution was prevalent in most postcodes that touch the sea, whether that's in the shape of apartments, erotic night clubs and neon-lit highway hotels.

There are as many as 1,200 brothels lining Spain’s highways, such as the Olimpo, 40 kilometres outside the capital on the A6, which, despite being used to lock up 40 trafficked Romanian women back in 1999, is still doing a roaring trade.

“I never experienced violence myself,” said Linda. “The owners would take advantage of our legal limbo and charge €50 a night for the room, €5 for clean sheets, €5 for a condom. Some insist you offer oral sex without a condom and others make you work 12-hour shifts. But the good thing about the clubs is that if a client gets weird, the bouncers throw him out.”

Credit: Personal archive
LindaCredit: Personal archive

At one point, Linda had her child taken into care and had to fight to get her back. Now, her daughter is grown up and Linda works independently, choosing her hours and customers. After years of struggle, she finally has her life set up the way she wants it.

But this could be short-lived. With the support of the conservatives, it looks like Spain’s abolition law on prostitution will be pushed through perhaps as early as October

Based on the Nordic model, the legislation aims to make black and white the grey area occupied by Spain’s sex industry, fining clients and punishing anyone financially exploiting the sex workers, including landlords renting property knowingly for prostitution. The sex workers, themselves, will be considered crime victims.

“What the abolitionists want is to control their husbands and stop them using prostitutes,” says Linda. “The majority of clients who come to me are married with families. They are excellent family men and good husbands but we give them a different kind of service. We have such rigid sexuality in our society that they can’t try out these things at home.”

Why don’t they leave us alone? It’s the white saviour complex.
Linda

Without missing a beat, Linda goes on to say there is no particular profile for men who pay for sex. 

“If you want the profile of a customer, just look around you,” she says. “It’s the young dude, the husband, the freak, the lonely guy… They speak about violence against us but a lot of them want to be dominated. Sometimes they want to dress up.”

The statistics are contradictory and outdated. According to a 2008 study by Spain’s Centre for Sociological Investigation (CIS), more than 32.1% of Spanish men have paid for sex at least once in their lives.  In 2011, the UN put that figure at 39%, earning Spain its reputation as Europe’s brothel. More recently, sociologist Antonio Ariño from Valencia University found that in the Valencia region, between 4% to 6% of men have paid for sex in the last year. He believes that figure could apply to the country as a whole.

But Fuensanta Gual, spokeswoman for the anti-abolitionist association CATS, which supports sex workers' rights, takes issue with the data.

“There was a study of 400 men in Germany and not one admitted to paying for sex which is statistically impossible," she said. "Here, in Spain, men are more likely to admit it.”

This lack of shame amongst Spanish men, Gual agrees, may have grown out of the explosion of eroticism during the 1980s known as the destapé, a reaction against the sexual repression of Franco’s dictatorship. Destapé means both nudity and opening up, and so nude scenes and sex, in general, became equated with shrugging off the shackles of the regime. 

Credit: AFP
A woman holds up a sign that demands the abolition of prostitution during a demonstration with the motto "The strength of women is the future of all" in Madrid on 23.10.2021Credit: AFP

The iconic photo of the Madrid mayor, Enrique Tierno Galván, presenting an award to the bare-breasted erotic actress Susana Estrada , summed up the mood and became symbolic of democracy reaching Spain.

The 1980s ushered in an era of such decadence that even the King, Juan Carlos I, now King Emeritus, allegedly paid for sex, details of which have been penned by former Colonel Amadeo Martínez Inglés in his recently published tome, _Juan Carlos 1:_The King of 5,000 Lovers.

Rocio Mora, from the pro-abolitionist association APRAMP whose mission it is to prevent, reintegrate and care for sex workers, believes the association between political freedom and prostitution is one of the keys to its normalisation. 

“It’s not liberal or progressive to go to a prostitute," said Mora. "Some of the women I tend to are so psychologically damaged, they can’t even talk about what the industry has done to their bodies and their lives.”

The sex industry in Spain is worth around €3.7 billion a year, according to various sources, including the Spanish Statistical Office (INE), but there is a significant discrepancy in the statistics when it comes to the proportion of sex workers being trafficked or exploited.

I’ve worked in Sweden, Norway and Iceland where the client is fined and sex work has supposedly been abolished. I know very well how this will play out – obviously very negatively for us.
Vera

Mora believes that Linda’s case is not representative of the majority of sex workers, but Vera, a sex worker in Madrid from Eastern Europe, points out: “There are no up-to-date statistics on trafficking in Spain. The government says it has based the law on a recent study, but it doesn’t exist.”

In 2012, the National Police’s organised crime wing, CITCO, put the number of prostitutes in Spain at 45,000 prostitutes, a figure sociologist Ariño believes refers to sex workers who are either trafficked and/or exploited. Gual from CATS maintains trafficking and abuse account for just 10% of sex workers in sharp contrast to the government, which puts the figure at between 90% and 95%.

Estimates of the number of sex workers in Spain also vary drastically, from Medico del Mundo’s 350,000 to CATS’ and Ariño’s 100,000-120,000.

Medicos del Mundo treats around 9,000 women a year, 93% of whom are immigrants, half with no legal status. 

“Thirty years ago it was Spanish women with drug and alcohol problems," said spokeswoman Celia López. "Now it’s immigrants. But what they all have in common is a very precarious economic and social situation.”

López believes that the high consumption of pornography among Spaniards is driving the demand for prostitution in Spain and that the bill as it stands will not be effective in reducing demand unless the penalties are coupled with awareness campaigns.

“Men need to know that if they are going to consume commercial sex, they could well be paying a woman who has been trafficked and that makes them complicit in the trafficking,” she said.

Vera, who studied economics and has worked in the sex sector in 12 different countries, believes that not only will the new law be ineffective, it will push an already shady industry further underground.

“I’ve worked in Sweden, Norway and Iceland where the client is fined and sex work has supposedly been abolished,” she says. “I know very well how this will play out – obviously very negatively for us. It will make it difficult for any female immigrant to rent an apartment because landlords will worry they’ll be fined for renting premises for prostitution. That means we’ll end up in the hands of the mafias.

“We won’t be able to report any crimes or violence that happens to us in our apartments for fear we’ll be thrown out,” she goes on. “That’s what’s happening in Norway and Sweden – crimes aren’t being investigated.”

While the spokeswomen from APRAMP and Medicos del Mundo insist all the prostitutes they have dealt with would jump at the chance of an alternative, Linda, Vera and Maria, an Ecuadorian who works on Calle Montera in Madrid, all beg to differ.

“Why don’t they leave us alone?” Linda wants to know. “It’s the white saviour complex. They’re like the missionaries that went to South America. They want to portray us as mentally ill, but we’re strong. We’ve had to fight stigma and make sure it’s understood that we’re not cockroaches, that we’re not going to hide.”